Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Recent Events

Jack Kevorkian died, without any help and in spite of his low-calorie diet.

I was reminded of this news as I sat in traffic school, a place where one may see and hear a number of shocking things. As a matter of fact, it was in traffic school where I learned the news of a girl who was thrown from her boyfriend's motorcycle during a somewhat recent traffic accident. The responding officers, as the story goes, had to call for a medical helicopter on account of the girl's traumatic and life-threatening injuries. As the paramedics lifted her onto the stretcher, it was noted that the girl's head had assumed the tactile properties of a water balloon.

Now, it turns out that the girl survived the accident. Lucky, isn't it? A happy ending. Yes, but we also learned that she is now obliged to perform most of her bodily functions through a series of tubes. This is because she has no use of her arms or legs, you see. As the traffic school officer so nicely put it, "she's done." Somehow that got me thinking of Dr. Kevorkian and his brand of medicine.

There is more news to report. Casey Anthony, a woman accused of murdering her young daughter, has been acquitted. I have no opinion on the matter, since I did not follow the case in the least. However, I note two things:

First, On account of the proceedings being rendered a national spectacle through the miracle of modern media, Ms. Anthony surely stood trial for all accused child killers in the court of public opinion, which generally has condemned her as guilty (if I am any judge of public sentiment).

Second, I note that some specialist commentators seem to accept that the actual verdict satisfies the rule of law.

I say this is interesting because it illustrates something about the rule of law. Now, "the rule of law" means just this: Everyone is treated equally under the law. The law is supposed to be applied exactly the same way to all, regardless of circumstances or any particular itch that the public may feel. Clearly this is not the same thing as justice, which means that we get exactly what we deserve. Of course, we try to employ the right amount of casuistry when crafting our laws, so that they can be equitable laws, but in the end everybody has to abide by what the law says even if it isn't fair. This is the rule of law, which is to say that the law may be satisfied without justice being done.

Since the rule of law is a manifestly venerated principle in some quarters of our political spectrum, this is something worth thinking about.

Is there any happy news to be told? Yes, there is.

North Korea's best researchers have determined that people who live in North Korea are among the happiest to be found anywhere. Now that this has been established as scientific fact, or at least as government truth in that part of the world, maybe it will become substantially true for the people who live there. Let us hope the best for them.

And are we happy in America? Alas, no. The North Koreans have also discovered that we are, in fact, the least happy of all people on the earth.

I protest this finding. They only say this because they watch our news, and perhaps attend our traffic schools. I contend that, in the United States, we already take our collective happiness for granted and have stopped inquiring after it. It is only if you doubt how happy you are that you must produce a study on it.

That, of course, is the cue for someone to cite a dozen studies that Americans have done about our own happiness (wouldn't it be ironic if someone pointed me to a certain cranky blog with the dubious title of "Surviving Phalaris?"). Nevertheless, I defy anyone to prove that we Americans are not, generally speaking, a happy people in spite of our multitude of complaints. Or perhaps even because of them. I confess that I believe we could be much happier, otherwise I wouldn't write many of the things that I do. We think we are pretty happy, however, and so we must be.

Anyway, we've had our own season of truth-telling, as we always do, during the weeks leading up to our Independence Day. This year's patriotic fare included some haranguing over the Civil War, characterized as always by a particular consternation over the fact that chattel slavery once existed in America.

Yes, this year marks the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the American Civil War. I meant to write about that in April, actually; I even read Bruce Catton to mark the occasion.

In any case, one of our political factions is freshly miffed by certain progressive interpretations of early American policies on slavery. Walter E. Williams wrote up a nice editorial that is simply brimming over with truth, while The Heritage Foundation's Dr. Spalding informed us, in his Independence Day essay, of a certain prominent slave owner's indignation at King George III for allowing the the barbarism of slavery to exist in the colonies. Another Facebook commentator exulted that an old political party--one with a name strikingly similar to that of the modern party to which he claims allegiance--ended slavery in America.

I reminded that particular commentator that we ended slavery in America in the same way that Dr. Kevorkian ended the lives of his terminal patients.

It's awfully important if things come into this world or if they leave it. Do you think it matters how or why? I think of the girl with the water-balloon head, dying on the pavement. Her life is saved for a little while, but for what? I think of another girl that died in a way that even Jack Kevorkian would have never endorsed, and will there be justice for her? I think of a dying institution murdered by a Civil War, but what else died with it?

No doubt you will answer those questions, if you care to do so, with truths. Maybe they will be the same kind of poetic truths, like the truth of happiness, that are true only because someone believes in them. Truth rarely stops disagreements, though; not the kind of disagreements that happen when competing truths collide.

One of our New Atheists recently explained to me that these poetic things we choose to put our faith in are all lies, and we should not base our lives on lies. Nonsense, I told him; whenever a materialist says anything is good or bad, he is telling a lie. Whenever he glimpses meaning in some precious fact, he only fools himself. If not the stories we tell ourselves, what else have we got to keep us going? Just look at the North Koreans.


Unknown said...

Lots of things to think about (and all this before the whole Murdoch media empire scandal hit).

It's possible today to observe, at least second-hand, a great many events. Your post reminded me about one life's greatest struggles: coming to accept that many terrible things happen, and there doesn't seem to be any justice done.

I know that personally influenced me in my twenties, and I became quite cynical as a result.

You wrote: "No doubt you will answer those questions, if you care to do so, with truths. Maybe they will be the same kind of poetic truths, like the truth of happiness, that are true only because someone believes in them. Truth rarely stops disagreements, though; not the kind of disagreements that happen when competing truths collide."

Exactly so -- to make a removed statement about how one eventually comes to terms with life's events. What do you tell yourself about the motorcycle victim? Or burn victim, etc.? Honestly, the only thing I can say for certain is that I'm glad it's not me -- but if it were, please don't leave me an empty shell trapped in medically-induced limbo. I have better things to experience.

Lastly, you wrote: "... whenever a materialist says anything is good or bad, he is telling a lie". I couldn't agree more. Having attempted materialism, I think that ultimate materialistic understanding requires one to be a machine. I also liked the implication that the rule of law does not necessarily provide human justice, just as facts do not provide human meaning.

Peter McCombs said...

I didn't consciously make the connection between law/justice and fact/meaning as I was writing this, but now that you mention it, I think that's a great observation.

The relationship between law and justice is very similar to the relationship between fact and meaning. The people who revere "The Rule of Law" and confuse it with justice are just like the people who revere "Scientific Fact" and think it means something about how one ought to live.

Those people are bringing something unexamined to their worldview.

Anyway, to your other point, it seems to me that Adam Smith once said something about how sometimes we shouldn't concern ourselves with these stories that happen to other people. What good does it do us to feel for the distant victim of accident? Smith seemed to think there was some sort of paralysis in this type of fretting over things.

He has a point, particularly for our modern world that is awash in griefs. Rather than paralysis, though, it seems that indifference is more the risk today.

Occasionally it behooves us to find out what these stories mean and to exercise our sympathy. I, too, would hope for a Dr. Kevorkian to save me from a medically induced limbo.